Currently on display at the Chazen Museum of Art is “Changing Hands: Art without Reservation 3,” the conclusion of a three-part traveling exhibition conceived and organized by the Museum of Art and Design. Showcasing contemporary Native art extending from the Canadian Northeast to the American Southeast, the exhibition highlights cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, and current societal issues regarding Native life. As the exhibit demonstrates the blending of traditional and modern cultures thematically, its simultaneously utilizes a variety of artistic mediums that maintain conventions of heritage and explore experimental expression. A diverse variety of sculpture, installation, painting, jewelry, video, textiles, and mixed media consume the Pleasant T. Rowland galleries, producing an eclectic show that examines the inevitable challenges associated with cultural change, assimilation, and synthesis.
The entrance of the gallery immediately presents Jeffrey Gibson’s Column, (2011-2012), a recycled wood construction barrier with brightly colored acrylic paint and glass beadwork. Although neither the wooden structure nor the applied decoration appear particularly modern, their combination is uniquely striking and acts as an aesthetically pleasing commencement to the exhibition. An additional opening piece is Sarah Sense’s Weaving the Americas, Panajachel (2011), which combines photographs of the artist’s journey from Canada to Chile and functions thematically and structurally as an appropriate beginning piece to the exhibit. The structure is indicative of a traditional basket weaving technique; however, the digital photographs and photo silkscreen medium incorporates a modern-day practice. Furthermore, the sheer act of weaving, particularly of images from scenes covering the Western Hemisphere, establishes a clear intermingling of materials that concretely represents the remainder of the show.
The idea of mixing materials and stories permeates the entire gallery, and the installations of the exhibition visually protrude to easily capture the viewer’s attention. Hannah Claus’ Birds (2012) aims to symbolically reinterpret and present collective memories. The installation displays round pieces of clouds printed on paper that float effortlessly alongside, above, and below one another. Claus intends for the cloud figures to be representative of a creation teaching from the Haudenosaunee in which the waterfowl catches and saves the falling Sky Woman. The background story is not necessarily obvious in the artist’s whimsically presented display; however, it still demonstrates the telling of community story within a contemporarily designed installation piece. This convention continues throughout other works, such as Luzene Hill’s Becoming (2011), which draws upon a Native American myth regarding the Pleiades constellation. The installation, made of silk ribbons and beeswax figures, hangs from the ceiling. The wax figures appear as human beings, but they nearly seem like stars floating in the distance. The blending of human and nature links to a Native mythological association, but the unconventional material and display create a unique and differential appearance.
As one progresses further into the gallery space, the artwork becomes more atypical, uneasy and controversial. Calico Corn (2010) by Natasha Smoke Santigold is a densite plaster sculpture of a pregnant torso, covered with bright green and purple acrylic paint. The sculpture represents the corn grown by the artist’s family throughout many generations and, thereby, conveys a theme of continued life. While this may be a traditional theme that is common in indigenous cultures, the pregnant and unnaturally colored stomach presents a shocking and uncommon sight.
The mixed media works of the exhibition contribute numerous surprising elements to the show. Two Row Wampum (2010) by Katsitsionni Fox is an encaustic on panel display of three torsos. Symbolizing the Two Row Wampum Treaty, which was created in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, Fox’s work stresses that the treaty’s original purpose of respect has “almost disappeared from the social, political and cultural ideology of ‘American’ consciousness.” Additionally, a video projection by Edward J. Burnam softly streams across the bodies to produce a unique blending of media and aesthetics.
Kent Monkman, who has multiple works in the show, is arguably one of the most notable artists of the exhibition. Monkman analyzes the substantial change undergone by Native cultures during the nineteenth century by incorporating fashion, history, and sexuality into his work in a humorous manner. Kiss the Sky (2010) is an acrylic on canvas piece that parodies Canadian landscape painting by creating a gender-bending and cross-cultural scene. The mountainous landscape depicts fallen and fighting angels alongside a Native man wearing pink feathers and heels. The man’s appearance is unexpected and causes the viewer to reconsider assumed notions of Native culture. Additionally, his Dreamcatcher Bra, Raccoon Jockstrap (both 2007), and his Louis Vuitton Quiver (2011), incorporate elements from traditional Native culture into sexualized, consumerist accessories and represent exactly what their titles dictate. The appropriated use of indigenous elements does take a comical approach; however, it is still critical of contemporary society. Monkman challenges historic and cultural assumptions and emphasizes both the fading and fusion of lifestyles.
Through the essential nature of such an exhibition, there is an inherently politically charged undercurrent that ranges from a subtle murmur to a screeching cry. The show displays a surprising variance in style and form, but it fundamentally aims to redefine identity through a blending of traditional and contemporary subject matter. Somewhat clichéd, but nevertheless thought-provoking, “Changing Hands: Art without Reservation 3” shines light on underrepresented talent and topics.